The coal mining industry and its workers have become a cornerstone of the conversation surrounding American politics. Coal, and the lives of its miners, has been used in campaign rhetoric, mentioned in proposed budgetary policy and is also at the heart of ongoing debates in Congress.
Leading up to the 2016 general election, coal mining became a hot-button issue in the presidential campaign for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
A soundbite from Clinton speaking at an Ohio town hall campaign stop in March 2016 had her promising to “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” The moment quickly spread throughout the news, making waves across mining regions in Appalachia and elsewhere in the country. She later apologized and said her remarks had been taken out of context, but her comments resonated heavily in the hearts and minds of those geographically, economically and culturally tied to coal.
Trump, on the other hand, led campaign stops throughout Appalachia with promises to put coal miners back to work. The billionaire businessman-turned-candidate and eventual president donned a mining helmet at a Charleston, West Virginia event, standing in front of a group of miners holding signs that read “Trump Digs Coal.” Such statements played no small role in Trump’s electoral domination of Appalachia, where he won 399 of the 420 counties across the 13 states that comprise the region.
After President Trump assumed office in January 2017, rollbacks of the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and other federal regulations were aimed to bring back opportunities to coal producing states.
Upon unveiling Trump’s federal spending blueprint, White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney remarked that the administration had considered coal miners in their decision to zero out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a publicly funded, private nonprofit that grants money to NPR and PBS stations and public media producers across the United States.
“When you start looking at the places that will reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was, ‘Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?’ And the answer was no,” Mulvaney said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Enter the newly ubiquitous coal miner in media story after media story. Such references throughout the campaign and in the infancy of the Trump presidency have catapulted coal miners into the national spotlight.
But, perhaps, the most important — and, arguably, dire — conversation surrounding the coal industry hinges upon the potential loss of healthcare benefits for thousands of miners.
Funding for benefits to miners diagnosed with Black Lung remains in question as debates over President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, the Affordable Care Act, continue in Congress. An investigation by NPR revealed that the prevalence of Black Lung may be greater than what many physicians and government officials once thought.
This series of stories, Patriot Coal: An American Bankruptcy, details a separate but equally important theme bubbling up in Congress — the battle over healthcare benefits for retired union miners.
Over the recent months, thousands of retired coal miners and their widows have been sent letters by the United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Fund notifying them that their health benefits are at risk of being cut off. Short-term funding solutions have been put in place at various points.
However, yet another letter was issued on March 1, 2017 — notifying miners and their beneficiaries that April 30 is the current date that 22,600 retirees of Patriot Coal and other bankrupt companies would lose their benefits.
If there is no action by Congress, that is.
At the time of publication of this series on April 23, 2017, no legislation — despite various bills being introduced and publicly championed by those in Congress from coal producing states — has been passed to ensure those benefits remain in tact beyond April 30.
The following series of stories matters not only because of our nation’s increased attention to coal miners, but also the timeliness of the issues at hand.
When West Virginia native and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism student Daniel Flatley introduced himself and his work to members of the 100 Days in Appalachia team, we knew his story on Patriot Coal had promise for real impact. Little did we know, the rollout of Patriot Coal: An American Bankruptcy — a mere week before the deadline to fund union retiree benefits — would make this story so much more relevant and important.
We invite you to delve into this series — and other stories from 100 Days in Appalachia and our partners — and share in your communities.
Dave Mistich (@davemistich) is the managing editor of 100 Days in Appalachia. A native of Washington, West Virginia, Dave has worked for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since October 2012, and has won awards for reporting as well as maintaining and editing the station’s website.